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10-30-09: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett Bolt Together 'Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel' : Photoshopping History

Some books are not just destined to be written, not just "in the stars." Some of them are mathematically defined.From the second the Adobe released Version 1.0 of Photoshop, from the second some wag first coined the term "steampunk" (I know there are several candidates), a book like 'Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel' (Abram ; October 2009 ; $24.95) by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, following of course, on the website was inevitable. The question we are forced to ask is: "What hath math wrought?"

The "high concept" here is simple; photoshop out Forrest Gump or Zelig and photoshop in a Victorian robot. Done! The result is 168 slick, 4-color pages in a large (8 1/2" x 11") format, and damned handsome by any measure. This is eye candy beyond eye candy for the steampunk crowd that wears cute little watches, leather this-and-thats and had made Victorian retro not just a fashion choice but a lifestyle. If you even remotely resemble that description, then you need read no farther; go buy the book, and get lost for a few days and probably on and off again until the book wears out.

On the other hand, the real question is this: Is 'Boilerplate' merely programmatic boilerplate steampunk, or did the writers and illustrators of this intensely designed book manage to find a soul amidst all the history they plunder for treasure? From the outside, the results are impressive. But the authors go deeper and it shows. This is not simply an assemblage of history remixed with a cool-looking steampunk robot. Guinan and Bennett are all about character, and the addition of the photoshopped photos and art is only part of how they go about creating the character of Boilerplate.

The real secret here is that Boilerplate is indeed treated as a character both visually and in the text. We're there at his creation by Profession Archibald Campion in 1893, and it's here, at the very beginning that things get very interesting. As it happens, 1893 was the beginning of a deep recession / depression the likes of which we're experiencing again even now, and as the authors draw us into Boilerplate's world, we're drawn equally into our own. From the get-go, we're pulling for Boilerplate and Campion because it is clear that where they're coming from is a time that is quite like our own. 'Boilerplate' is a perfect example of the "funhouse mirror" style of science fiction, both visually and in terms of written content. Our world as seen in .... Including some very nice touches, such as when Boilerplate shows up in Houdini's silent, The Master Mystery, which did indeed feature the first robot on film.

But the problem is that clearly, we've not learned from history. Straight-ahead history may inform our minds but it rarely informs our hearts. What 'Boilerplate' does is to get us involved in history as a story, to take us outside of the facts and engage our "Gee whiz, that's cool!" emotions. That child-like sense of wonder proves to be the perfect reset button, a key that unlocks our ability look at history and suspect that yes, perhaps, this time around, we can change things.

World Fantasy Convention Note

I'm at the World Fantasy Convention this weekend, trolling for audio. Email me if you'd like to talk, or just look for the guy with the tape recorder and briefcases of audio gear.



10-29-09: Books worth
Re-Reading, Stanislaw Lem Edition, Volume 1: 'A Perfect Vacuum'


I talk a lot about books worth reading, and there are a lot of them about. Not every book you read is going to be the greatest thing ever written. You don’t want that to be the case. Sometimes you want a fun crime caper novel (Josh Bazell 'Beat the Reaper', Joe R. Lansdale 'Vanilla Ride'), or a nice light piece of non-fiction (Amy Stewart's 'Wicked Plants,' or Hannah Holmes' 'The Well-Dressed Ape'). Or perhaps you want to read a substantial work about things that matter ('The Clinton Tapes' by Taylor Branch or 'The Case for God' by Karen Armstrong), and follow it up with a rocking piece of science fiction ('Orbus' by Neal Asher will do quite nicely). But sometime you want to go back to the well, and look up a book you enjoyed before and return to its comfortable challenges.

In an ideal world, I'd just be able to read books. And re-read them. This being a less than ideal world, I have other things to do beyond reading, and it is true, that I write this column for the sheer joy of spreading the word about words. Some of my favorite words, hands down, that I return to regularly are those found in Stanislaw Lem's 1971 (Polish) / 1978 (English) collection of faux book reviews, 'A Perfect Vacuum' (Northwestern University Press ; November 25, 1999 ; $14.95).

To attempt to review this book is useless; Lem has already written the perfect review, and put it at the front of this collection of reviews. He doesn't like his own work very much, dismissing the collection as "a book of ungranted wishes," that is great ideas that cold have been flesh out into novels or short stories. I beg to disagree and shall not defend my disagreement not a contrary review, lauding the virtues of a book that simultaneously, with each entry, creates the character of the various reviewers as well as a panoply of literally mind-boggling imaginary literary works. Instead, I'll focus on the utility of a book that contains, as it were, many books. In a mere 229 pages, you can experience 16 books. Now THAT'S a bargain.

Lem is best known for his science fiction, in particular 'Solaris,' which isn't even, to my mind, his best science fiction novel. (Today I'll accord that honor to 'His Master's Voice,' though tomorrow I may change my mind.) So yes, expect to find some reviews of science fiction novels here; "Being, Inc.," a look at virtual reality thirty-something years before it came to your iPhone. Or, what we'd now call alternate / secret histories with "Gruppenf├╝hrer Louis XIV" about some renegade Nazis who attempt to set up a re-creation of the world of Louis XIV in the Brazilian jungle with stolen gold and addled brains. However, Lem is equally adept at creating literary alternatives, such as "Toi" (a book written in the second person) and "Odysseus of Ithaca." 'A Perfect Vacuum' includes looks at the science fiction genre and to a certain extent performs a science fictional thought-experiment on literature without being science fiction itself.

What 'A Perfect Vacuum' offers in terms of utility is a book that can be easily and often re-read, by virtue of Lem's ability to combine low comedy with highly-intelligent observations about what we read and why. Let's take a moment to give credit where credit is due, and in this case, the utterly brilliant translation by Michael Kandel never, ever seems like a translation. Instead, we get the author's cranky, smart voice running roughshod over literary convention and pretense, while ascending to even higher levels of pretense than those it unclothes. When you seek a reading experience, what could be purer than reading reviews of imaginary books? There are sentences in here that you will never forget. Here's a book that can answer any yearning you have; literary, science fiction, you name it — Lem offers it in an unparalleled re-reading experience.



10-28-09: Jeff VanderMeer Goes Underland for 'Finch' : Another Dream of Ambergris

Reading is the closest we can get to dreaming while remaining wide awake; and the distinction become more difficult when you’re reading an Ambergris novel by Jeff VanderMeer. There's a density to these books, a solidity that makes the reader feel dislocated. Not in the city of Ambergris — that seems perfectly reasonable and real. No, reading an Ambergris novel makes the reader feel dislocated in this world.

Start reading
'Finch' (Underland Press ; November 3, 2009 ; $14.95) and let the book surround you while the real world recedes. There's just something about the way VanderMeer writes, with such utter and individual, iconoclastic conviction that makes his books different. The tale-teller resides so surely in the world in which the tale is told that the world in which we read seems almost unformed by comparison. The poetry and passion of Ambergris, the peculiarity and perversion of those who reside there are all obviously reportage. The language is so sure-footed that which is describes must be as well.

'Finch' is a noir set in the post-Gray Cap Ambergris. Fittingly, for a book published by the innovative folks at Underland, what was once beneath now controls the surface. Like many detectives, John Finch is given an impossible task. But unlike many detectives, Finch lives in a world where the undercurrents have flooded the surface, where the horrific within has become the daily grind. What makes this work for readers are VanderMeer's characters, who have the same sort of worries and concerns that we have; they simply unfold in a rather different world, a world that is ours from the moment we open the book.

One the big appeals of VanderMeer's creation is the setting, of course, because VanderMeer does not subject the reader to interminable marches over essentially boring terrain to fight this foe or that foe. Everything is claustrophobically located in the same space, a crowded, often dirty and annoying dense city. Nothing is too easy in Ambergris. It's just like any city you might choose to live near now; crammed with good districts and bad neighborhoods, streets crowded with humans and those would might once have been human, before the sold themselves to powers that are clearly not human.

Underland's doing a smart job selling 'Finch' to those of us in this world. The basic book, at fifteen bucks, is s sturdy trade paperback suitable for reading in the taqueria. But knowing VanderMeer's default readers well, they've offered a wealth of optional editions that will nicely compliment your reading copy. At this moment, there are a total of 500 limited editions, split between two versions. "The Rebel Edition" goes for $50 and "The Heretic Edition" for $110; check the website for all the details. As a guy who has spent more money on limited editions that took years to deliver than I am comfortable admitting, the price point and availability of these books is really outstanding. And the fact that they're a new Ambergris novel by VanderMeer; well, it's like fungus on the cake.



10-27-09: Jeff VanderMeer on the 'Booklife' : Surviving a Desire to Write

It's not like you have to write. Or rather it is that you have to write. Say it to yourself; I have to write. Once you get that sometimes shameful admission out of your mouth, you've won half the battle. Generally, that means you know what your problem is and you're dealing with the writing part of it. It's rest of life that gets in the way. Particularly this pesky thing you’re reading at the moment, the Internet. Well, Jeff VanderMeer has some thoughts on that. Yes, welcome to part one of two of the Jeff VanderMeer show on The Agony Column.

Conveniently for you, he's put them in
'Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer' (Tachyon Publications ; October 15, 2009 ; $14.95). Like me, you've probably seen ten thousand books about how to be a writer. I find them all somewhere between mortifyingly embarrassing extremely uncomfortable. I find the idea of someone telling me how to write, well, counter-intuitive and kind of galling. Now, it's possible that most folks don’t feel that way. And lord knows, nobody is knocking down my door to buy anything. That said, "Guides to Creativity" and you know, plot development tips and whatnot seem to me to be maps that would lead only to a place someone else has arrived at well before you departed on your journey. The idea of creative fiction writing is that you're writing something nobody else has or could write — or could really tell you how to write.

But there's a bunch of other crap that you can get help with, and Jeff VanderMeer is a master of every bit of it. He knows how to work the tubes that comprise the Internets; consider this article Example A. He knows how to submit your stuff to publishers, and he knows how to get out the word that you are indeed a writer worth reading. Given that you have the raw work, or even a finished, published novel, 'Booklife' will help you make it something that other people read.

With the breakdown of the big publishing empires, the first thing to go is a lot of promotion for your book. You reach the pinnacle of publication only to be tossed over the precipice of publicity. 'Booklife' will be your life-line, allowing you to rappel down into the trenches of blogging, and other words too odious to mention. Look, not everyone who reads the Internet and writes is a tech-savvy nerd with compulsive social-networking skills. (Least of all me, who doth not Tweet, Facebook, and never entered MySpace.) VanderMeer lets you write your book (offering tips on structuring your working day but leaving the content up to you). He even goes so far as to talk about mental health tips, like, a chapter on DESPAIR. My only complaint about the book, really, is that perhaps it should have started there, because, frankly, by the time we're picking up this sort of book, DESPAIR is our constant companion.



10-26-09: Cory Doctorow and 'Makers' : Cover Meme of the Week

I love the publishing world and the strange currents that run through it. So this week, let's start off with the Book Cover Meme of the Week. I've noticed time and again that book cover designs often seem to have partaken of the same source of inspiration, and that's clearly the case with the covers for Jonathan Lethem's 'Chronic City' and the latest from Cory Doctorow, 'Makers.' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; November 2, 2009 ; $24.99). But the similarities are more than cover-deep.

Like Lethem, Doctorow has a secret source of power that's not obvious. 'Makers' is a near future vision that fits perfectly into what I once called, in a piece for NPR, the economic fiction genre. Doctorow's unparalleled inventive prowess is front and center in this story of two geeks with lots of good ideas. But he doesn't just employ his imagination to create new worlds or aliens or any of the other science fiction genre staples. Instead, Doctorow uses economics as his playground, diving without fear into cycles of boom, bubble and bust. His brains bursts with more than a few wonders of the imagination, made more incredible by virtue of the fact that we don't expect invention in the realm of economics.

Doctorow is also a master of one-upping himself, which should come as no surprise given his interest in the Singularity. In 'Makers' he manages to keep the readers' jaws dropped, as one mind-boggling scheme is supplanted by another, each new plan in equal parts wacky, intelligent, and plausible. He uses creativity and invention as plot points, thus keeping our minds and hearts in sync as we race through the novel. And this is by far his most substantial work, topping out at just over 400 pages. This time around Doctorow gives readers time to really get immersed in his world, which is to say, our world as seen through his economic kaleidoscope.

But for all the science-fiction-of-economics inventiveness, for all the delightful plot shenanigans Doctorow cooks up, by far his best asset is to my mind his directness, a trait he shares with Lethem. Doctorow never beats around the bush. Everything he says, everything every character does is somehow more right there on the page than we're usually accustomed to seeing. Doctorow's art is to a degree his ability to strip out all the art. He's got great ideas and makes no attempt to hide them or lead up to them. They just spill right out of his characters' mouths. Even though we're reading a sort-of science fiction novel, the real appeal of 'Makers' is that Doctorow just spills out one truth after another. It's refreshingly fun to read a novel where everything you need is right there on the printed page — even if you didn't print it yourself.



New to the Agony Column

04-19-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 157: Lorrie Moore : Bark

04-16-14: Commentary : Michael Katakis Lets Fall 'A Thousand Shards of Glass' : Missives from a Parallel World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Michael Katakis : "..we haven't lived up to what people's illusions and dreams are..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 156: Michael Katakis : A Thousand Shards of Glass

04-02-14: Commentary : David Rich Steps in as 'Middle Man' : Spy Novels for the 21st Century

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with David Rich : "...so much is known so quickly..."

04-01-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 155: David Rich : Middle Man

03-29-14: Commentary : Carol Cassella Mirrors 'Gemini' : Two Places at Once

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Carol Cassella : "... we could provide good care for everyone..."

03-26-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2005 Interview with Lucius Shepard : "It's an urban war in Iraq."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 154: Carol Cassella : Gemini

03-20-14: Commentary : Dave Barry Warns 'You Can Date Boys When You're Forty' : Five Star General Humor

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Dave Barry : "...you have the right to demand that they grope your genitals manually..."

03-19-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 153: Dave Barry : You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About

03-17-14: Commentary : Michael Marshall (Smith) Sees 'Bad Things' : Dark of the Heart

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books With Alan Cheuse : Elizabeth Spencer, 'Starting Over: Stories'; James Magnuson, 'Famous Writers I Have Known'; Dasa Drndic 'Trieste'

03-11-14: Commentary : Ian Rankin Ordains 'Saints of the Shadow Bible' : Standing in the Shadow of the Past

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ian Rankin : "...I knew that he would not want to leave the police force..."

03-10-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 152: Ian Rankin : Saints of the Shadow Bible

03-04-14: Commentary : Michio Kaku Foresees 'The Future of the Mind' : Form Follows Function

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Michio Kaku : "But I'm a physicist..."

03-02-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 151: Michio Kaku : The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind

02-25-14: Commentary : Annie Jacobsen Files 'Operation Paperclip' : History as Thrilling Literature

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Annie Jacobsen : "Hitler's top scientists became America's own."

02-23-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Part 2 : "...still clear distribution lines for books...."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 150: Annie Jacobsen : Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America

02-20-14: Commentary : Jeff VanderMeer Seeks 'Annihilation' : Creative Destruction

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Part 1 : "...obviously, something is subverting the landscape..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 149: Jeff VanderMeer : Annihilation

02-14-14: Commentary : Jenny Offill Engages 'Dept. of Speculation' :The Domestic Descent

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jenny Offill : "..where did the rest of me go?"

02-13-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 148: Jenny Offill : Dept. of Speculation

02-10-14: Commentary : Kelly Corrigan's 'Glitter and Glue' : Remembering Forward

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Kelly Corrigan : "You just hope you get to have that whole second act with your children."

02-08-14: Commentary : My Life in the Bush of Books : Life as an Internet Failure Edition

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 147: : Glitter and Glue: A Memoir

02-06-14: Commentary : Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. and Zoe Francois Bake 'The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day' : Cheese, Beer and a Crock Pot

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. and Zoe Francois : "I knew it wouldn't work."

02-03-14: Commentary : Jane Pauley Hears 'Your Life Calling' : Crossing an Economic Singularity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jane Pauley : "..it suddenly hit me; I almost cried..."

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